A Parental Identity

“Just you wait ’til you have kids of your own!” -My Mom, circa 1998, and every parent, ever

If you want the soundtrack to this post, click here to hear: “Icicles” by Patty Griffin, on Impossible Dream


They have said that I knew the job was dangerous when I took it. It is. I’m pretty sure none of us get out of this life alive–and, in the best way, I knew that committing to the task of expanding our real family was going to be the death of me. Which is, incidentally, what Paul must have been praying for me to discover.

I’m not sure that this little blog in the ether of the interwebs counts for very much on the ‘proclamation‘ front. I’m not exactly a polished, glossy product. And all that I have to offer in the way of making things known is to describe as clearly as I can the way that love worked for me around 9:24pm last night.

Which is to say that the overwhelming sense of not being ‘enough’ of a parent to my beautiful, wonderful, confused, and angry preteen stepdaughter broke my heart a little wider open to receive more of the biggest mystery there is.


My particular situation of ‘infertility’ is (strangely to me) a topic that people love to ask me about in conversation. “When will you have one of your own?” they have asked, or “What are you two waiting for?” with a questioning glance at my mid-section. It’s difficult to respond well and succinctly in public. In short: I have one of my own–and I share her with her biological parents as they share her with me. We are waiting for people to be more interested in talking about more interesting things… say, interplanetary physics or postmodern theological responses to Kierkegaard.

But usually, I repeat a tired line about Sarah laughing, and kick that can further down the road because it would take a change in those laws of interplanetary physics… more commonly known as a miracle. And engaging those questions are about as far from helpful it gets. Perhaps I will become bold enough to counter: And you? Have you got any sources of psychological pain rooted in perceived mismatches between past hopes and current identity that you enjoy speaking of while waiting in line at the deli counter?


Last night, as we postponed work and watched home videos of our girl, videos from a time when she was younger and wilder and freer and kinder, dancing around our kitchen in a unicorn mask, Dracula toy teeth, and a flouncy pink ballerina skirt. I grew increasingly aware of the feeling of fear that undergirds so much of my own relationship to being a step-parent.

I’m afraid–no, terrified–that no one on this earth will ever look to me with the kind of love my child has for her real mother and father.

I am waiting constantly to feel confirmation of that fear writ large. It cascades, when I am willing to let it, into wider academic fears about suffering the permanent rejection of my ‘foreign body’, and the lived identification with daily and pernicious unkindnesses visited upon all those ‘thems’ in human conflicts. And then, down into the pits of despairingly specific things I go. At my most petty and self-pitying I fear that I have left my home country and traded my grown up career for the capital offenses of making weird food, too many lists, and an unwelcome intrusion on a domestic order that preceded me and whose broken places cannot be healed but are made even more visible by my presence in the system.

Cue the ugly cry.


Not exactly a comfortable spot to put my husband and daughter in after a nice taco dinner and the boisterous laughter of sharing sweet memories. Not exactly what people long to hear when asking about what they haven’t earned the trust to hear. Not exactly in line with the image of confident security I’m prone to project.

But there is truth that’s waiting on the other side of naming that fear.

Not the palatable, wrap-this-story-up-with-a-bow kind, like an exclamation point on a pregnancy test. There is no band-aid to be found in a baby, and while I rejoice with women who have the children they have longed for, I also grieve with women who lose hope for the children they cannot have.

Not the more sinister and asinine kind, that blithe response to the depth of real grief, ‘I’m not in control, but God is!’ or some other vinyl decal peel-and-stick belief. Take your bumper stickers and shove… please pray for me.

Not even that lovely classic theme, that I can now more deeply resonate with “the Father’s love for us,” though that has certainly presented itself multiply over this first year of marriage and parenthood.


For now, it is simply this: that the shape of Real Love is to stay faithful and true to the choice to love that which is right in front of us, even if it puts us at risk of seeing our most real fears realized. Obedient to death, even death on a cross. Even death at the hands of those who hate us. Even horrific and undignified death in a tent at the border of freedom. Or, more closely relevant for tonight, a slow and unexciting death of how we once categorized ourselves.

There is nothing about complexity or pain that releases me to choose differently. There is nothing about fairness or justice that releases me to choose differently. There is nothing about fulfilled obligation or promised rest that releases me to choose differently. Living by that choice is as easy and as hard as allowing myself to be hugged and simply sat with at the end of a tiring day.


Nothing about being held changes what caused my fear to arise, or the exhaustion borne of my efforts to mollify it, just as nothing but feeling pushed against can quite convince me of my parenthood more. Hate and disdain and rejection and ignorance are real and damaging, no matter their size or shape or user. The fears that they generate are real.

I just believe that there is no end to the kind of love that lives past them.

So this is the practice I’ve chosen: to say that this life isn’t particularly easy but it is good. I didn’t expect it to be, exactly, but I didn’t expect that I’d have the hardest time learning how to just do the same simple things over and over again: Breathe. Listen. Choose words of kindness. Forgive. Tell your story. Let yourself be held so that when you need to hold others, you can.

Offer your shirt, your water, your heart, out of your love.

I’m sure I’ll feel this way again, from time to time. I am here to experience the fullness of Love in a radically challenging context. Here to say, quite openly, that it sucks and I’d rather be eating bon-bons while reading The New Yorker on the couch, instead. I’m not. Not all the time, anyway.